A short story inspired by a trip to Kingley Vale near Chichester, and the ancient yew forest there. I don’t normally do gruesome, but it’s not that that bad. The Donestre is a mythical monster from an old English writing called the Wonders of the East. I was fascinated by the grief it showed after it killed its prey. See also here.
The Donestre – Tale of the Lovers
She had been watching him from a distance, only drawing closer once he had set up his tripod under the boughs of The Lovers. The two ancient yews started their lives a short distance apart, and over a thousand years, they blindly entwined in a creeping and binding embrace, wrapping limb around limb. The light contrasted every sinuous strand, each twisting protuberance along the length of their loving arms.
She waited until he had framed his shot and snapped the twig under her heel.
“Did I startle you?” she said softly when he jerked his head.
“Just a little,” he replied. “Were you watching me?”
“Yes, sorry, I didn’t want to disturb you.” She turned her attention to the trees. “They’re quite something. “They say if lovers kiss under their branches then the woman will conceive.”
He nodded and smiled. “I’ve heard that too.” Then he continued to set up his shot.
She watched his tongue lick the dryness from his lips.
“I’m always coming here,” she said, “This forest is my cathedral. It’s great to see someone else stopping by.” She drew closer and stretched out to stroke the russet boughs, picking at the flaking bark like dead skin.
“I read about these two back at university,” he said, “I’ve come a long way to capture them.”
“So you’re Irish.” She tilted her head and searched for a memory, then she playfully jabbed the air , “from Cork I reckon; that’s where you’re from!”
“Spot on! Is it that obvious?” he replied. “I’m here on holiday.”
“I know Cork well,” she said. “I used to work in a bar on Princess Street.”
“It’s a small world,” he said and blushed, turning back to his camera. She watched him intently as he set the shutter speed, unconsciously fumbling with the lens-cap in his pocket.
“I’m sure I’ve seen you before,” she said.
“Maybe you have,” he said. “I run the historic walks around the city. My name’s Michael.”
“That must be it, Michael! I’ve probably seen you dozens of times. How funny is that?”
Michael looked and studied her face, her hazel eyes and long, red hair that flowed like the roots beneath their feet. He shook his head.
“I don’t recognise you.” There was pause and she smiled. “Are you interested?” he asked. “In photography, I mean.”
“Oh, yes!” she said. “I love it, but I’m pretty rubbish. I do a lot of travelling; lots of pictures, selfies mainly.”
She saw the trickle of perspiration running down his temple.
“May I see?” She pointed to the camera.
She came close to him and stooped slightly to look through the viewfinder. Michael stood behind. She felt him watching her, his eyes following the curves of her hips and buttocks in her tight jeans.
“It needs a long exposure in this light,” he said to break the silence.
“That’ll be a great photo,” she said. “I’m Donna, since you didn’t ask.”
“Hi, Donna.” He laughed.
She turned and looked deep into the forest beyond the clearing. Michael licked a bead of sweat from his lip.
“This place is so, so old, Michael. Can’t you feel it?” She gave away a slight lilt in her voice to match his.
“Yes, I guess I can,” he said. “You can hear the boughs creaking. Like their talking.”
She stepped away from him and walked below the branches. Michael took a silver flask from his rucksack and followed her.
“Would you like some tea?” he asked awkwardly.
“Thanks. Do you have enough to spare?”
“And a biscuit, if you’d like one. Digestive?”
She accepted his offer with a broad smile, briefly touching his arm in thanks.
“There are lots folktales about this place,” she said. “Have you heard them them?”
“I don’t know. I just like trees, especially these two.” He poured out a cup to share and read from his guidebook. “The Lovers: two love struck giants, clinging together to save each other from Noah’s Flood.”
“I’ve never heard that one before,” she said.
“How about this?” he flicked a page and continued. “The Lovers: A blacksmith called Billy Puttock falls hopelessly in love with a young and beautiful witch called Eleanor Fry, who lived in this forest. The local bishop discovered their relationship and ordered their death. Chased into the forest…”
She played tat being scared.
“…they were trapped by the bishop’s men. Before they were killed, Eleanor held her lover tightly in her arms and turned them both into trees. Here they stand, waiting for a pardon from the church so that they can turn back again.”
“That’s a better story,” she said.
“I’m not one for love stories… and why trees? Why didn’t she turn them into birds so they could fly away?”
“Fly away?” she said thoughtfully. “Have you never been in love, Michael?”
He shrugged and avoided her gaze.
She sat leaned back against the trunk. “That’s sad, Michael,” she said,” and such a handsome head on those shoulders.”
“I knew this girl once,” he said as he sat opposite her against the Eleanor tree. “We were the best of friends. I liked her a lot. Actually more than a lot, but… I couldn’t trust a woman like that again.”
“You’re still a virgin then?” She smiled wickedly. Michael blushed and pretended to be offended.
“There are other stories of this wood,” he said, looking back at his book.
“What other stories are they?”
“According to this this book, a monster walks amongst the trees and… t the ghost of a Saxon king.”
“It must be the king’s day off today.” She laughed. “Come on, Michael. Perhaps you have a gruesome tale from your famous haunted tour?”
“I use a script,” he replied, “and…this is my holiday. I don’t mix business with pleasure.”
Her face became serious and she looked up to the Lovers.
“Do you know a bishop who would forgive them now?”
“No, sorry. Why do they need forgiveness for loving each other?” he said.
“Then you are a true lover after all!” she said.
He frowned while he thought about what she said. She ran her long fingers through the soil and she sensed him watching her again.
“What does it matter?” he said.
“Then why are you taking pictures of trees?”
He laughed. “Good question. I thought Siobhan would like them.”
“Ah, the object of your unrequited love!”
“I thought she’d love the poetry of it. She’s always quoting Keats and Byron. She’s educated, you see. She’s clever and well read. And I know nearly nothing about poetry and prose. I’ve never read Joyce or Swift. My worst nightmare was of her finding a Tom Clancy or an Andy McNab in my room!”
“So you’re taking pictures of The Lovers to impress a girl?” she said, mocking him slightly.
“Yes. Pathetic isn’t it.”
“Just to gain some academic snob’s affection?”
“She’s no snob! Just… complicated.”
They both laughed to relieve the tension.
They continued to talk under the trees, weaving and winding their stories together, entwining their boughs. She listened intently and gently prised him open like a tasty oyster, listening to his story and laughing at is jokes.
She stretched, rose to her feet and stood over Michael. The trees were silent. She could hear his blood pulsing through his body. His cheeks flushed at the sight of her body silhouetted against a setting sun.
“I should never have fallen in love with Siobhan,” he said.
“Why not? I fall in love all the time,” she said. “I’m always in love.”
“Really?” Michael replied. “Don’t you ever get hurt?”
She smiled down at him and now she knew she had him.
“Ah, no, never,” she said quietly. “Sadly, that’s what I always do to them.”
She watched him as he thought for a moment, working out a plan in his head.
“Are you hungry? Have you eaten?” he asked.
“Then come for a meal with me, my treat.”
“I’d love too,” she replied. “I feel like I haven’t eaten in years!” She laughed and held out her hand ready to pull him up.
The Donestre sat beneath The Lover’s arms and wept over the handsome head cradled in her hands. With the last bony remnants of his body cleared from her throat, she tenderly licked the blood from Michael’s face with her long tongue and stroked back his hair. Hot, syrupy tears rolled down her face and splashed into the blood-pooled soil. Her naked body slumped in shame, her monstrous face covered by her matted, red mane.
“It always hurts so badly, Michael,” she told him, “but my hunger never goes away. I’m so sorry…you said yourself you couldn’t trust a woman again.”
She placed Michael’s head gently beside Eleanor’s tree. With the camera already in position, the Donestre wiped away her tears and pressed the shutter button.
I hope you enjoyed the story of The Donestre. Don’t have nightmares.